When “Hoosiers” screenplay writer Angelo Pizzo arrived in Rushville on Saturday night for a fundraising event that included key figures from the film and the 1954 Milan state championship team, I told him jokingly that I was looking forward to hearing a lot of new stories about the making of the movie.
Pizzo smiled. “Good luck,” he said.
There isn’t a lot that hasn’t been told about “Hoosiers” at this point. There is an excellent book by Gayle Johnson, “The Making of Hoosiers: How a Small Movie from the Heartland Became One of America’s Favorite Films,” that covers a lot of ground in detail. The 1954 Milan story that inspired the film has also been discussed and covered hundreds of times in various forms.
Yet there are little nuggets and tidbits from both stories — either new or little-told — that bubble to the surface now and then. I’ll share a few that I heard Saturday night:
• Three of the Hickory Huskers from the movie — Brad Long (Buddy), Steve Hollar (Rade) and Maris Valainis (Jimmy) — were seated at a table together to sign autographs and memorabilia. Listening to them banter back and forth, it sounded like three guys who had actually played on a team together.
All three credited Gene Hackman, who played the role of coach Norman Dale, for feeding them acting tips. None of the players had any acting experience.
Long, who played at Center Grove and at Southwestern College (Kan.), said there were numerous practical jokes among the players between scenes. He shared one that included Hackman:
“This was probably my idea, I don’t know,” Long said. “I was a little bit of a ringleader. I got one of the guys to get (Hackman) to come up to me to ask about my mother’s dancing lessons. I said, ‘Mr. Hackman, I don’t think that’s very funny. My mother lost her legs in a combine accident.’ We did stuff like that all the time. I don’t think Gene thought it was very funny, but we got him pretty good on that.”
Long’s father, Gary, started at Indiana for Branch McCracken in 1960 and ’61.
• Hollar was arguably the best player on the Hickory team. Two years prior to shooting the movie, in 1984, Hollar scored 12 points in the state championship game as a junior as Warsaw defeated Vincennes Lincoln 59-56.
Hollar, who played at DePauw in college, said the Hickory players watched tape of the Milan players in the hotel room to get accustomed to the 1950s style. Hollar was a point guard and accustomed to dribbling between his legs and behind his back, which wasn’t Milan’s style.
“No between the legs and no behind the back,” Hollar said.
Another difference was the shooting style. Players in that era would often shoot with one foot off the ground.
“We got out messing around with that and, probably because I was weak and little, I got pretty good at that shot,” Hollar said. “I felt like I could chuck it a long way. I sort of became our long ball shooter because of it. I probably should have shot that way at DePauw.”
• The authenticity of the games in the movie is often cited as a reason for its lasting impact. Many sports movies, especially in the 1980s, were not believable to sports fans.
“We made a pact that if Buddy takes a shot, that camera is going to follow him shooting all the way to Buddy making the shot,” Hollar said. “A cutaway would be Buddy taking the shot and then there’s (somebody) on a ladder dropping the ball through the hoop. That aided in the authenticity.”
• Valainis was born nine years after Bobby Plump’s game-winning shot for Milan in 1954. But the Indianapolis native grew up playing basketball and was well-aware of Plump and the Milan story prior to shooting the movie.
“Everybody in Indiana knew that story when I was growing up,” Valainis said. “I had a friend who introduced it to me. He had (the Milan-Muncie Central game) on Super 8 film. So that was the first time I saw it as a kid.”
• It’s been told before, but it’s interesting to note that Valainis almost didn’t give himself a chance to play Jimmy Chitwood. At that time, Valainis played in a Monday night game at St. Luke’s. Casting director Ken Carlson and adviser Spyridon Stratigos — who were told beforehand to check out the St. Luke’s game for potential players — watched one night as Valainis drained basket after basket.
Carlson and Stratigos asked Valainis to attend a casting tryout the next day at IUPUI.
“When I got down there, there were about 500 people in line,” he said. “I stood there for about five minutes and said, ‘I’m gonna leave.’ Right then, Ken Carlson walked out of the door and saw me. He took me in and let me audition right then and there.”
• All of those involved mentioned the work of Dennis Hopper, who played the role of Shooter Flatch, as a highlight to the experience of shooting the film.
Long said his favorite scene from the movie came at the hospital (filmed at Wishard) with Shooter and his son Everett (David Neidorf).
“It showed how much Indiana basketball meant to a guy in a hospital drying up,” Long said. “It was really emotional.”
• The line of the night was Ray Craft zinging old friend and Milan teammate Plump. Craft, who had a role in the movie as he greeted the Hickory Huskers at Hinkle Fieldhouse, played some of his best games in the 1953 and ’54 regional at Rushville.
Plump handed Craft the microphone in front of the crowd Saturday night.
“That’s his first assist,” Craft said.
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.